28 June 2017


Morakniv Companion Fixed-Blade Knife

Versatile fixed blade outdoor knife

I have been using the Morakniv Companion off and on for several years, mostly doing volunteer trail-clearing work. It is a remarkable tool. Rather than doing my usual good-bad lists, I will discuss the various sections of the knife, then summarize.

The Companion is Morakniv’s general purpose/entry level knife. It is a fixed-blade knife, meaning the blade doesn’t fold into the handle. All fixed-blade knives must be sheathed to make them safe to store and carry, and the Companion comes with a molded plastic sheath. (More on that later.) A good fixed-blade knife is incomparably better than a folding knife in nearly every way that relates to function, and this is a good fixed-blade knife.

The blade

The blade is just over 4″ long, which is long for a pocket knife but short for an outdoorsy knife. It has a clip- or drop-point profile (I have seen it called both) in which some of the back of the blade is ground away near the tip. This has the effect of dropping the tip down closer to the midline of the knife, probably to make it more handy for drilling holes should the need arise. (Some claim the blade is based on a traditional Finnish knife, the “pukko,” but I can’t confirm that.)

Two steels are available: stainless steel (Sandvik 12C27) and carbon steel (which will of course rust if you don’t keep the blade clean and oiled. I personally prefer the stainless steel.) Sandvik 12C27 is considered a fine but unremarkable knife steel, certainly suited for this kind of knife. It is tempered a bit soft (R57-58), which is also appropriate for a utility knife. The blade is quite tough; there are videos of a blade being bent double without breaking, and then being straightened, and then being used to cut things without a problem.

The blade is somewhat thin, being 0.1 in. (2.5 mm) thick. That is thicker than most folding blades, but thinner than some survival knives. The Companion is also available in a Heavy Duty version with a 0.125 in. (3.5 mm) blade.

The grind is more or less a “scandi” or “v” grind, meaning there is only one bevel angle. (I say more or less because mine had a bit of secondary bevel where it had been honed.) To contrast, your usual chef’s knife has at last two and usually three grind angles. Scandi grinds have the advantage of not requiring much skill or apparatus to resharpen. If you are out on the taiga and need to resharpen a seriously dulled blade, you just place a stone flat against the bevel and rub. The grind also makes for a robust blade, since no other steel is removed from the blade other than at the bevels. For things like whittling, creating feather sticks, etc., that grind is supposedly unparalleled. The disadvantage is that the blade can wedge and bind in stiff materials like cardboard or hard vegetables like squash. It will not act like your 8″ chef’s knife (which has a “full flat grind”). That grind also means sharpening is relatively slow, since you have to remove steel the entire width of the bevel. (A serrated Companion is available.)

The blade is polished, but not quite to a mirror finish. The blade is pretty bright, but I can see hints of the earlier grinding steps, when coarser stones were used. But the finish is much nicer than it has to be, especially for the price.

The back of the knife is a pretty assertive 90 degrees, good for scraping a fire-starter rod (I tried it.)

The construction is not “full-tang,” where the blade steel continues the full width and length of the handle, and the handle is just two plates or “scales” attached to the tang. It has a “stick” or “rat-tail” tang, where the blade becomes a rod that extends most of the way into the handle. On the good side, that means the knife is cheap, light, and balances well. On the bad, that means the knife is not as durable as a railroad spike or crowbar. (More on that later.)

Out of the box, the knife was scary sharp.

The handle

If you are used to folding knives, the Companion’s handle will be a revelation. It feels palm-filling and secure no matter how you hold it, with no hot spots. You can work with it all day and not get blisters.

There is a subtle finger guard near the blade, and a similar swelling at the end of the handle. They make the knife less likely to slip in your hand, but they aren’t big enough to get in the way in certain holds. Overall, the handle is shaped perfectly.

The material is just plastic overmolded with tackier rubbery material except at the handle ends. It does not become slippery when wet (though I haven’t tried it when the handle was greasy.)

The handle caps (and sheath) are available in a variety of colors. The light blue or orange options are harder to lose and less scary looking than black or dark green.

The sheath

The sheath is a single piece of tough, rigid plastic. The knife snaps in, so no securing strap is necessary (though Morakniv does sell more elaborate sheaths.) It has a sturdy belt hook and a drainhole. It will likely last forever.

Interestingly, the blade covers about half of the handle as well as the entire blade. That makes it very secure and protective; the knife really will not fall out. But it also makes it a little slower to grab and draw out. A worthwhile tradeoff, in my view.

The cost

It costs FOURTEEN DOLLARS. I have seen them for as little as $12. And there is no other place to say that the knife, taken as a whole, from the sweep of the edge, to the mirror-like polish, to the contouring of the handle, is beautiful. It didn’t have to be, but it is.

So now, the good and the bad.

The good:

the Companion is…

– Durable (certainly more so than any folding knife)

– Fitted with a superior handle (superior to any folding knife, and most fixed-blade knives)

– Light, well-balanced and easy to handle

– Nicely made and finished

– Available in a variety of options re color, steel, serration, thickness, etc.

– Cheap as all get-out. An amazing bargain.

The bad:

the Companion is…

– A tad scary to look at, though it is smaller than many kitchen knives. You might get a reaction from people if you show it to them.

– Probably illegal to carry on your person in most cities. They are meant for the campsite or worksite. There is a shorter knife, the Eldris, which for some reason is more expensive.

– A bit harder to sharpen, because of the scandi grind. Apparently some people who enjoy that kind of thing will grind a deep secondary taper into the blade, so it has almost a wedge profile, like a kitchen knife. That will make the knife easier to sharpen and a better slicer, but less robust. A few Morakniv models come prethinned toward the tip of the blade, which supposedly makes them better for animal skinning and breakdown.

– Not the most heavy-duty knife out there. It is certainly strong enough for most bushcraft, including batoning (where the knife is used as a small splitting wedge.) But you cannot hammer it into a concrete wall with a sledge. You cannot pry open doors with it. It is just a cheap, simple knife. If you want a heavier duty knife, you can check out Morakniv’s Garberg or Bushcraft models.

– Some people complain that the sheath and handle show wear relatively quickly. I would respond that both handle and sheath are comfortable, effective, and cheap, so who cares? If you want a G10 handle, buy a different knife (and pay 3, 5, or 10 times as much.) Same goes if you want a heavier blade. So for the cost of a screwdriver, you can get a very functional, well-designed, effective, almost beautiful knife with a few shortcomings. The only change I might really want would be to make it a full flat grind, like a lot of Spyderco knives. That would make the blade less durable and robust, and it would mean more machining, so more cost. But at even double the cost, it would be a good buy. And even as is, it is a no-brainer for camping, woodcraft, even gardening and some bushcraft. If you don’t have a fixed-blade outdoor knife, this is the one to get. You will be amazed at how much more comfortable and capable it is than any folding knife.

-- Karl Chwe 06/28/17

28 June 2017


Saunders Clipboard

Indestructible paper shelter

[This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2003 – MF]

My Saunders aluminum clipboard portfolio is the best personal organization investment I’ve ever made. It looks great, and for anyone who regularly carries a messenger bag or briefcase, this little thing is a godsend. It’s the size of a legal pad, and just as thin, but it provides a fantastic place to store and protect the various pieces of paper I want to keep close at hand. (At the moment, mine contains an itinerary for a flight I’m taking in two weeks, a construction contract I need to sign, a guest list for my wedding, and a manuscript I’ll edit tonight.) It even has a place to store a pen beneath the clipboard clip.

I’ve been using my portfolio nonstop for four years, and it’s virtually indestructible. (Saunders makes the aluminum clipboards used by police and building contractors.) The outside of mine has acquired plenty of scratches and battle scars, but the inside still looks like new, and my papers stay undamaged and uncrumpled, even after months of shuttling from my house, to my messenger bag, to my office, to my car, to anywhere else I might wander. And for just ~$18, it’s a bargain! Saunders makes a variety of other aluminum form holders, including the cop-friendly “Cruiser Mates.”

    -- Todd Lappin 06/28/17

    (Reader Msilver adds: "This is a great clipboard for tabletop roleplaying game geeks. Keep your dice and old character sheets in it." — editors)

27 June 2017


OXO Swivel Peeler

Superior vegetable peeler

[This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2003 – MF]

It is hard to image how the traditional kitchen peeler could be substantially improved. Remarkably, the OXO Peeler accomplishes this. Easier to use, vastly more comfortable for long stretches, sharper, and more productive. The OXO Peeler continues to win awards in test kitchens. A superior tool; worth the few extra dollars.

-- KK 06/27/17

27 June 2017


Pie Iron

Make hot meals over a campfire

A neighbor introduced me to pie irons a couple years ago, and I was hooked. Now I don’t go camping without them. Pie irons, or hobo pie makers as some call them, are hinged cast iron or aluminum boxes about the size of a sandwich, with a long handle so you can hold it over a campfire.

Before pie irons my family was limited to hot dogs, sausages and other food you could roast on a stick over the fire because I don’t like to deal with washing many pots and pans while camping. Now, we eat gourmet meals that are a snap to put together. You put a filling inside dough — biscuit dough, pizza dough, puff pastry, etc. — and the pie iron crimps the edges while it cooks over the fire, resulting in a delicious, crispy thing that can be eaten with your hands.

We’ve made calzones, apple turnovers, biscuit, and gravy pockets, ham and cheese pockets, and more. The last time we went camping, all of our meals were made in the pie iron. It’s also a quick way to cook vegetables such as zucchini or fry up some sausages. Nothing makes a better grilled cheese. There are a lot of recipes online, but I usually just wing it. When you’re done cooking, cleanup is easy. I usually just wipe it out with a paper towel with a little cooking oil on it, and it’s ready to go for the next time. I bought 2 of the double pie irons for our family of four, and it’s working out fine. If you don’t anticipate having a grate to rest the pie iron on, however, you might opt to go with a smaller pie iron, because the double gets heavy if you have to hold it over the fire. The double also has ridges inside (like a grill), so get the single if you don’t want that.

-- Abbie Stillie 06/27/17

27 June 2017


A Geek in Japan and A Geek in Korea

Best subculture guides

In the futuristic cities of Asia a geeky subculture is bubbling up. They are breeding manga, K-Pop music, small robots, anime, martial arts, soap operas, high-speed bullet trains, weird food rituals, tattoos, cosplay, video games olympics, incubators, and more — all propelled by the intensely urban life of billions of young people. If diving into these subcultures is your idea of travel, then this set of guides will help interpret what’s going on. These are not so much travel guides per se, but more likes cultural guides — what are those plastic statues outside of stores, and who are those kids with deep artificial tans? Far more than any other cultural guides I’ve seen these focus on the modern, urban, subcultural aspects of these ancient places.

The series began with A Geek in Japan, which is still the best one; I highly recommend it for newbies to Japan; this material won’t be covered in the usual guidebooks. And A Geek in Korea is helpful, too, because there’s a lot happening in global geek culture there, somewhat off the radar. Two others in the series, A Geek in China, and A Geek in Thailand, are less successful because there is less geekery happening in those countries; but they might be helpful for introducing the general culture to first-time visitors.

-- KK 06/27/17




Safety in Japan

Why is there so little crime?

A low crime rate doesn’t mean that everything isn’t well monitored and that there aren’t policemen everything. What strikes you is the number of small koban (police buildings) secreted everywhere in the country. In every koban there are two or three cops ready in case you need them. The truth is, they don’t have much serious work to do, and they are almost always giving directions to passersby in the area. If you get lost walking around Osaka or Tokyo, one of the simplest ways to get back on track is to go to a koban for help.

This is a typical koban, very easy to recognize because they have the same logo all over the country.


Life of a Salaryman

In the rigid structure of Japanese business, the only way to climb to the corporate ladder is to spend many years at the same company. By the same token, if you change companies, you have to start out again at the bottom—which is why people don’t change jobs often. Salarymen wake up around eight o’clock in the morning, have breakfast, put on their suits, take up their briefcases, and get on the train for a commute of approximately an hour. They work, have lunch with their coworkers, and usually work overtime, arriving home very late at night. Often, before going home, they will go out for a drink with their workmates and pass the time at an izakaya.

A good salaryman is always in a suit and carries his inseparable briefcase.



They look very much like kogals but are somewhat different in their tastes. The ganguro are a minority tribe with a look inspired by the very dark-tanned girls from California. They usually listen to R&B and American pop music, and they generally like American culture. This minority tribe basically gathers around Shibuya and Harajuku. These days, you don’t see as many ganguro as you did at the turn of the century. However, as their legacy they have left behind a style of dance called Para Para, which has become very popular among young people in Tokyo and Osaka. If you want to see the Para Para dance, I recommend you go to the Womb nightclub in Shibuya or Ageha Hall, the two largest nightclubs in Tokyo.


Visual Kei

Visual kei bands are characterized by their use of over-the-top costumes and special effects onstage to maximize their impact on audiences at their concerts. Fans copy their idols’ clothes, while at the same time the performers have evolved, following trends in pop culture. Lately, visual kei’s costumes have gotten very close to the clothes of characters in Japanese role-playing video games, and they sometimes merge with cosplay world. If you want to see the young people of this urban tribe, in Tokyo they usually congregate on the bridge over the railroad tracks at Harajuku Station on Sundays, a little after lunchtime.



Publishing cycles and formats

Mangazasshi — Thick magazines printed on cheap paper that contain approximately 20 stories of about 20 to 30 pages each. Their low prices help them to be consumed as if they were newspapers. The difference is that, for mangazasshi, there is a second-hand market, because people discard them and others with little money pick them up and resell them. The most popular mangazasshi is Weekly Shonen Jump.

Tankobon — Compiled volumes of only one series in about 200 pages. This is the real meat of the business, where publishing companies make money.

Bunkbon — Similar to tankobon but smaller. They would be the paperback version. Only the most successful series come out in bunkobon.

Other formats — There are other manga formats for special editions and collector’s editions, as well as really inexpensive volumes sold in 24-hour convenience stores.



If you were to compare New York City to Tokyo, Shinjuku would be Manhattan. It’s the district with the most skyscrapers and neon signage in the city. It’s a must if you want to feel transported to the setting of a Ridley Scott movie or to one of the cities in Ghost in the Shell. Shinjuku often appears in movies, manga and anime. Some examples would: Lost in Translation, Death Note, Tokyo Tribe, Wasabi and Tokyo Drift. One of the most impressive things in Shinjuku is its train station—the largest and busiest in the world. An average of three million people use it every day, and it has more than two hundred exits.


26 June 2017


Rockwell Compact Circular Saw

Lightweight and compact circular saw

I had to renovate our shed last year, and the old 7.25-inch circular saw I had was loaned out to a friend and never returned. I bought this Rockwell compact 4.5 inch circular saw to replace it, and I have used it on several projects since then. It made quick work of the plywood I had to cut to size to replace the rotten plywood, and it cut the 2x4s and 1x4s easily as well.

What makes it so much better than a regular circular saw is that it is about half the weight and size of a regular circular saw which makes it much easier to handle and use. If you are making a long cut in sheet goods, for example, the light weight makes it a lot easier to move through the material. You can even use it one handed. Try that with a regular circular saw. It is just way less intimidating of a tool than a regular circular saw. It is less powerful in terms of amps, but the blade is not as thick as a regular blade so it easily powers through 2×4’s, 2×6’s, and sheet goods.

It comes with a metal track/guide to allow you to make long rip cuts with ease. It also comes with a dust port insert if you wish to use a dust collection vacuum. The Rockwell site says it can replace a regular 7 1/4″ circular saw for both DIYers and pros. I would say it is definitely a great saw for the DIYer and possibly the professional to use for trim and light duty tasks. A pro would probably rather use his or her worm drive HD circular saw for most cuts. You can find it at most online sites. The local Home Depot did not carry it in-store, but they did have it for sale online. It does not come with a bag or box, but I stuck mine in a DeWalt contractor’s bag that I had leftover from a previous tool

-- Justin La Mar 06/26/17


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23 February 2017



We Refreshed Our Website

If you read Cool Tools via RSS (which is the way Kevin and I read blogs) then you probably don’t realize we updated our website design today. We took your feedback seriously and tried our best to simplify the design and make it more legible.

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13632766_602152159944472_101382480_oKevin Kelly started Cool Tools in 2000 as an email list, then as a blog since 2003. He edited all reviews through 2006. He writes the occasional review, oversees the design and editorial direction of this site, and made a book version of Cool Tools. If you have a question about the website in general his email is kk {at} kk.org.

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